SJC to decide whether license plate reading cameras infringe on civil rights

BOSTON — The state's highest court is deciding whether cameras that track vehicles using license plate reading technology infringe on people's right to privacy.

The debate stems from a criminal case where two drug suspects where arrested after police used the cameras to track them.

Across the state there are more than 160 plate readers, and now the SJC is trying to figure out if this technology could infringe on people's rights. The cameras use license plate reading technology to track registered vehicles coming and going.

Now, the SJC is deciding whether police should be getting warrants to use the information being collected by the cameras. Former prosecutor Brad Bailey says there are two competing interests.

"One is a reasonable expectation of privacy and the other is public place," said Bailey.

In the criminal case at the center of the legal question, the two suspects were arrested after police tracked their movements over the Cape bridges for a 74-day period. Attorneys for the defendants argued the evidence gathered should be deemed inadmissible because there was no warrant issued for the information.

In a hearing, justices referenced the Cape cameras as being part of a larger network, which could, in theory, be used to track someone throughout the state.

"These four cameras don't exist in a vacuum - they are part of a system and our rule is going to impact the entire system," said one justice.

The attorney for the state argued the cameras only captured the drivers in public spaces, where they theoretically would have no claim to privacy.

"You are creating a dossier of how many times I'm going back in forth and what I'm doing and you are ultimately using that and if I'm not doing anything wrong I ought to be left alone," said Bailey.

People we spoke to are split on whether this is a privacy concern or not.

"If you are not a bad person you shouldn't worry about it," said Paul Desir, of Boston.

"It's kind of a slippery slope if we start allowing this stuff to happen then what kind of things come next because they are so similar to this and then it leads on and on," said Annie Lynch, of Boston.

The ACLU has also filed a brief in this case because of its concerns with the technology infringing on people's privacy rights.

"I think there should be other, more sophisticated ways to be able to find the people who they know they are already looking for," said Maddie Oliff, of Boston.

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